Zelensky Flounders in Bid to End Ukraine’s War

Pushing a controversial peace agreement, the new president faces blowback in Kyiv that he may not be able to overcome.

Demonstrators hold smoke grenades as they gather in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Demonstrators hold smoke grenades as they gather in central Kyiv, Ukraine, to protest broader autonomy for separatist territories on Oct. 6. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine—Cast as an unwilling character in Washington’s impeachment drama, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is facing his own political crisis over a compromise deal to end Ukraine’s war with Russia. And he may be losing. 

The Ukrainian comic-turned-president announced on Oct. 1 that he had signed the Steinmeier Formula, a road map to ending the war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of his country. The process, which is overseen by Germany and France, calls for local elections in occupied parts of the Donbass region and its recognition as a special autonomous region.

Yet Zelensky faced an immediate backlash at home after agreeing to the scheme, and he does not yet have the political support to implement the plan, casting doubt on its future.

Thousands of people took to the cobblestone streets of Kyiv and chanted “No to capitulation” following the deal’s announcement, arguing that the formula violates Ukraine’s sovereignty. Giving the occupied Donbass region an autonomous status would require changing Ukraine’s constitution, and Zelensky’s Servant of the People party lacks a supermajority in parliament to make that happen. Opposition parties reject the formula.

“Autonomy is not something that we would support,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, an opposition official in parliament and former deputy prime minister. She told Foreign Policy that opposition parties would be willing to discuss other security arrangements, like the “withdrawal of Russian forces, Ukraine getting control over the border, or international peacekeeping operations from Europe or the U.N.”

Without the support of opposition parties, Zelensky held a marathon 12-hour press conference on Thursday—which Ukraine’s National Records Agency declared the longest on record—and tried to gain support for the formula. Zelensky said he was afraid the conflict in the Donbass would become “frozen” and said if Russia did not want to negotiate “there will be no deal.” A person briefed on Zelensky’s thinking told Foreign Policy that he signed the Steinmeier Formula— named for a 2016 proposal by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was serving as foreign minister at the time—in as a political concession to France and Germany. A spokeswoman for Zelensky did not respond to questions. 

Similar to the origins of the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, in which Russia initially denied involvement, both Moscow and Kyiv have presented different interpretations of the Steinmeier Formula, which does not have an official text that both sides can refer to. Zelensky said that elections in the Donbass would take place only after Russian troops withdraw from their positions in the occupied territories. Few comments have come from the Kremlin, but the flagship program on Russia-1 state television, Vesti, reported that Kyiv agreed to withdraw its troops from the front lines, and the Kremlin has already accused Zelensky’s government of setting new conditions.

“The agreement is certainly ambitious and it’s certainly ambiguous with a purpose,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Foreign Policy. “Is that because Zelensky wants to manage the domestic side as he makes a concession or because he wants to show some flexibility to the French and the Germans while conceding nothing?”

Western diplomats and military officials believe that some variation of the Steinmeier Formula is the only long-term solution to ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Implementing the formula will next require a meeting of the so-called Normandy Four—Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. But diplomats and experts told Foreign Policy they believed Russia did not want the Normandy meeting to occur. 

“The pressure is on Russia and that is why a delay is taking place. In my opinion Russia is feeling uncomfortable at the moment. Moscow is in a situation where they have to react to Ukraine,” Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, told Foreign Policy. Kuusk said that the next step in the process is the Normandy meeting followed by Russia agreeing to disarm its separatists. “Nothing is clear, because this is the first step.”

Other observers take an opposite view, saying it’s Zelensky, not Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s in the uncomfortable position. “The pressure of this formula is all on Ukraine and Zelensky and not on Putin, and that is the reverse of where it needs to be,” Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense covering Russia and Ukraine, told Foreign Policy. “Merkel and Macron have said that Ukraine needs to make concessions to help Putin find an offramp, which is ridiculous because it is Russia that has troops in Ukraine.”

It’s difficult to assess which interpretation is correct, as there is no public document that lays out the agreement, meaning that all sides can present their own interpretations.

Further confusing the picture is that there may be differences in the positions of the United States and European nations regarding elections in the Donbass. U.S. officials have pushed for the reinstatement of Ukrainian control of its international border, a sentiment that has not been publicly expressed by Germany or France, according to a source familiar with the diplomats’ positions. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department directed Foreign Policy to a previous statement expressing cautious support for the formula. Both Obama and Trump administration officials have grown frustrated with the European Union’s unwillingness to take a tougher stance on Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine. “We do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing, and they should be helping you more than they are,” U.S. President Donald Trump told Zelensky in a now-infamous July 25 phone call, during which Trump also asked Zelensky to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, according to a summary released by the White House.

The bid to end the war in eastern Ukraine comes amid a swirl of other deals among the four nations involved in the Steinmeier Formula. German and European officials are in the final stages of constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will provide a new route for natural gas from Russia and bypass Ukraine. Kyiv would lose some $3 billion in gas transit fees. It means that if Zelensky agreed to the Steinmeier Formula, it may be a cold-blooded calculation to gain European support in upcoming natural gas negotiations. 

From Moscow, experts believe that Putin is reveling in the political and military chaos across his border. “Putin’s goal is to destabilize democracies in the region in order to shore up support for his kleptocratic regime,” Carpenter told Foreign Policy. But he said that increasing U.S. pressure on Putin in the form of broader financial sanctions was necessary: “Absent any significant U.S. leverage over Moscow, I don’t think we can end the war in the Donbass. I think we are miles away from that right now.”

Russian-backed separatists began their takeover of eastern Ukraine in early 2014, and some 13,000 people have died. The front lines have not generally moved for the past two years, Ukrainian soldiers told Foreign Policy in a visit early this year to the no man’s land between both sides. 

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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